Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Attacking the Left

Wherein two generals make plans to swap places

While Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Army of Northeastern Virginia on behalf of the Federal government and the Unionist states, professionally prepared his study of bypassing the Confederate defensive position on Bull Run, the Confederate position was being reinforced. Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson had started the reinforcements after dark on the night of the 19th, bringing just under 2,500 men to add to the total. Throughout the night parts of two more brigades arrived by train at Manassas Junction, and at noon, the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah himself, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston.

Joseph Eggleston Johnston
Porter Alexander, Chief Engineer for the Confederate Army of the Potomac defending Manassas Junction, remembered his first look at Johnston years later:
I think [he] was more the soldier in looks, carriage, and manner than any of our other generals... His pictures, which are common, give an excellent idea of his strong and intellectual face. He was of a medium stature but of most extraordinary strength, vigor, and quickness.
Like many of his peers, Johnston was a decorated hero of the Mexican War, leading his men over the wall at Chapultepec (without their guide, Joe Hooker), getting wounded time and again in battle (Winfield Scott had once quipped, "Johnston is a great soldier, but he had an unfortunate knack of getting himself shot in nearly every engagement."). He had also been the first West Point graduate to attain the rank of general in the U.S. Army, being appointed Brigadier General as Quartermaster of the U.S. Army, but held the rank only a short time before resigning to follow Virginia to the Confederacy. He was the highest ranking officer to do so.

Johnston had been stationed at Harper's Ferry when action had started, and had been engaged in a (rather dull) game of cat and mouse with the North's Major General Robert Patterson, whose identically named army seemed unable to commit to chasing down Johnston. Patterson had inexplicably pulled back from his march on Winchester the day that McDowell marched from Washington, giving Johnston the chance to slip away and join G.T. Beauregard and completely destroying the whole plan for an attack on Manassas Junction. But because Johnston's cavalry (under Colonel J.E.B. Stuart) was blocking all the roads between Winchester and Patterson, nobody in Washington had any idea yet that Johnston was gone.

Beauregard was beside himself in ecstasy, his long fought-for plan to unite the armies finally realized. By midnight he should have nearly identical numbers to McDowell at last. But not just Johnston's army had arrived, Johnston had too, and he was Beauregard's superior officer on a technicality. Beauregard sketched out the situation for Johnston. McDowell had his army based on Centreville, facing Mitchell's Ford. If Johnston's extra units were positioned further downstream, behind Union Mills Ford defended by Colonel Dick Ewell, then they could attack McDowell on his left flank (attack from the side, in this case between Centreville and Fairfax Court-House) and crush his army, keeping themselves between him and Washington and collecting most of his men as prisoners. Then they could march on Washington and demand recognition of the new Southern nation.

Johnston considered the plan carefully. Beauregard's planned concentration would leave the army very vulnerable on their left flank, north of the Warrenton Turnpike [US 29]. But, on the other hand, Patterson would realize sooner or later that Johnston had flown the coop and would be ordered to join McDowell, again outnumbering the Confederates. Johnston assented to the plan, and surprised Beauregard by graciously offering him command of the field. He reasoned that having been in the area for half a day was a poor comparison to Beauregard's month, and offered to serve as an adviser to the junior general during the battle.

It was the best of all possible worlds for Beauregard. And while Johnston headed back to Manassas Junction to oversee the arrival of his men, Beauregard and his staff scurried over the area putting them into position. As night fell and the men lay down to try to catch some sleep before the coming battle, Beauregard retired to Yorkshire with his staff to draft the orders needed.


At Centreville, McDowell continued planning, not completely unaware of Johnston's arrival. "I learn from a person who represents himself as having just come from General Patterson that he has fallen back," he wrote in his report that afternoon. "There are rumors General Johnston has joined Beauregard." He was overwhelmed, however, with ninety-days men who were packing up camp and marching back to Washington and militia pillaging and burning houses around Centreville.

By 8:00 pm, though, he was ready, and at his headquarters he assembled all of his division and brigade commanders. Secretary of War Simon Cameron was there as well, having traveled from Washington to visit his brother, Colonel James Cameron of the 79th New York, a regiment in the brigade of Cump Sherman from the unruly First Division of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler.

The Fourth and Fifth Divisions would remain in reserve. The Fourth, which was little more than a posse, would stay well back at Vienna, Fairfax Court House, and Fairfax Station to guard the army's supply lines. The Fifth, under U.S. Army Colonel Dixon Miles would stay at Centreville so that McDowell had a professional on hand in case of an emergency.

The Second and Third Divisions, both under professional U.S. Army colonels (David Hunter and Sam Heintzelman, respectively), would be the hammer in McDowell's attack. They would march north along the roads scouted by Chief Engineer Major John Barnard over the previous two days to Sudley Ford [VA 234], crossing there and deploying into battle formations on the hills beyond.

The First Division would have the job of keeping the Confederates in place behind their defenses, by attacking Blackburn Ford again [VA 28] and the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Turnpike [US 29] with a brigade each. Once Beauregard realized that it was a diversion, he would rush any of his reserves north to the Warrenton Turnpike. That's when Tyler would send his two remaining brigades into combat at the Stone Bridge and the Confederates would be overwhelmed from two sides. The three divisions now united on the far side of Bull Run would be able to march quickly south towards Manassas Junction while destroying Beauregard's left flank, hopefully rolling up the Confederates along Bull Run like a rug.

It was a big responsibility for McDowell to leave with Tyler, so he put the brigade charged with attacking Blackburn Ford (that of Israel Richardson, who knew the area all too well by now) under Colonel Miles of the Fifth Division. Tyler would then only have to focus on the three brigades for Stone Bridge. It wasn't McDowell's ideal, but it would be better than leaving his emergency reserve units under Tyler.

McDowell again wanted Burnside to lead the army, tapping his to be the first brigade across Bull Run at Sudley Ford. Major Barnard reported there was a farm road Burnside could take, keeping under cover for about six miles to the ford, and suggested the Second Division leave after dark to mask their movement. Burnside spoke up, recommending resting his men for six hours until 1:00 am and then making the march and attack at 2:00 in one movement. McDowell agreed, believing that the men would be unable to sleep after the night march.

The meeting broke up, and the commanders hurried back to their units to rouse their staffs and begin drafting the orders for the battle. If both had their way, in 24 hours they would wind up again facing each other across Bull Run, but from the opposite bank at which they now sat.

Print sources:
  • Alexander, 48-49
  • Freeman, 70-72
  • Marvel, 21-22

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